Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."
The series will explore four issues:
As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.
I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.
Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.
The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”
Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”
Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.
This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.
To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.
At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.
One of the many fierce debates at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (CoP), which opened this year on November 26 in Doha, Qatar is about climate finance. How should the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the adaptation to climate change’s effects, both slow-onset, such as drought, and suddenly catastrophic, such as Hurricane Sandy, be most effectively financed?
According German Watch’s latest Global Climate Risk Index, “More than 530,000 people died as a direct consequence of almost 15,000 extreme weather events, and losses of more than USD 2.5 trillion (in Purchasing Power Parity) occurred from 1992 [the first year of the UNFCCC negotiations] to 2011 globally.” To that toll, among other extreme weather events, can be added Sandy’s cost of at least 121 lives and $71 billion in repairs, most of which will be paid for by the U.S. federal government.
Among the many contentious issues to be debated at the CoP, perhaps none is less likely to be resolved than the issue of how to pay to adapt to climate change and to reduce GHGs. This debate goes beyond the question of whether payment should come from the industrialized countries that bear the historical responsibility for the majority of GHG production, or whether payment also should come from those developing countries that will, in the words of U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing, bear “future responsibility” as major GHG emitters. The question is not even how much of a share each should pay, but whether any significant funds will be committed at all.
The biggest threat for agriculture at the 18th Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is the certain likelihood (oxymoron intended) of “non-decisions” for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires. Bill McKibben’s widely circulated article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math tells us in starkly clear terms what we need to do to set things right:
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
McKibben lays out in simple terms what we policy advocates and scientists have failed to do thus far: convince the average citizen in the industrialized world why immediate, ambitious and drastic cuts in our fossil fuel use is necessary to prevent the deadliest impacts of global warming, not just for future generations, but for this generation. Yet, government representatives will be going to the climate talks prepared to take years to cobble together a legally binding deal to cut emissions worth the paper they sign.
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I came away from the 39th session of UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) last Saturday tired but hopeful. In a world where many are skeptical of global institutions' ability to solve the world’s most challenging problems—not least of which, climate change—the CFS offers a new approach to global governance, and is getting results. It’s a rare place in the multilateral system where transparency and participation have stretched to allowing civil society a place at the negotiating table. The processes are not perfect, and as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter’s summary reminds us, there is still a need for a “strong, innovative monitoring and accountability mechanism” to give the organization teeth. Nonetheless, it’s getting things done, and keeping a surprising diversity of people happy while doing it.
Last week in Rome, the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) agreed on key principles on how governments must address the massive food security challenge that climate change brings. The big news: Governments at the CFS recognized that policies addressing climate change must also support the Right to Food—an important step forward that if taken seriously by governments could result in a major shift in the way agriculture and land use are considered at the global climate talks.
On Wednesday, September 26 Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the bill AB 685, into law, establishing the policy that every person in California has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water. This is a historic moment in the U.S. debate over the right to water.
The U.S. federal government has not recognized water as a human right, but this policy initiative at the state level could become a turning point as far as water policy and politics goes. It is indeed a step in the right direction, given the concerns about “right to water” violations in California which were raised by the U.N. Special Rapporteur Catalina de Albuquerque following her visit to the United States in 2010.
The bill was authored by assembly member Mike Eng (D-Alhambra) and was co-sponsored by Safe Water Alliance, a coalition which includes many of our allies, and has been advocating for right to water in California for several years. The reach of the bill is extensive, and would help address some of the issues raised in the U.N. report, which identified specific cases where people were denied access to water or had to spend a large percentage of their income to secure water for domestic use.
The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.
Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.
Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.
Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer.